TERENCE Rattigan’s late play In Praise of Love is the story of a marriage, and like so many of the writer’s other plays, focusses on what is NOT said rather than the words in the script.
Revived by Jonathan Church at the Ustinov in Bath until 3rd November, you have to ask why this magnificent production isn’t being staged next door in the Theatre Royal. There is not a seat to be had at any of the performances.
Set in 1973 in a sitting room full of books, it starts as Lydia, exhausted, climbs the stairs and stumbles to the sofa. When the study door opens and her husband, the critic Sebastian, comes in, she’s immediately smiling and energetic, while he continues his quarter-century of verbal abuse disguised as affectionate banter.
Enter Mark, old friend, would-be lover and wealthy writer of successful (and often filmed) thrillers. With armfuls of gifts and super-sensitive to Lydia’s needs, he’s the antidote to Sebastian’s cruel jibes and general helplessness.
Next comes Joey, Sebastian and Lydia’s son, aspiring playwright and volunteer Liberal party worker, whose politics are deplored by the pseudo-Marxist Sebastian.
All typical Rattigan characters … or are they? The playwright’s lifelong theme was of unbalanced relationships, but here, carrying his own terminal diagnosis, he achieves an equality of love, but one evident only to the anguished Mark and the audience.
Rattigan’s fall from public and critical favour with the advent of the “angry young men” has never been more painfully discredited than in this superb play. And it is hard to imagine it better done than by the Bath cast, Tara FitzGerald, Robert Lindsay, Julian Wadham and Christopher Bonwell.
The intimate setting of the Ustinov allows every expression and gesture (many of them in the playwright’s original notes) to make an indelible impact. The 70s furniture and props only underline the unchanging aspects of human nature, and it’s sometimes almost unbearable to watch.
FitzGerald’s Lydia, a post-war refugee from Estonia at a time when it no longer existed, is totally convincing as a stranger in a pretentious literary London enclave, retaining not only strange vowels but a feeling of not quite belonging after 26 years. It is an extraordinary performance.
See if you can get a return for this unmissable production.